Guide to Literary Terms

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What is the meaning of symbolism?

The meaning of symbolism is the use of concrete things to represent abstract ideas.

Symbols and Symbolism

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Symbolism is the use of symbols (objects, colors, characters, and so on) to represent certain abstract ideas or qualities to give a literary work a deeper and often more profound meaning. Be careful not to use symbolism too casually! Strong examples of symbols must go beyond the literal and will (most likely) contain multiple layers of meaning.

Correct example:

  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, mockingbirds symbolize innocence and vulnerability, giving the reader a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics at play in the novel.

Incorrect example:

  • “When Lennie says, ‘Come on, George. Tell me. Please, George. Like
  • you done before,’ this symbolizes his desire to eventually own a farm with George.”
  • In this case, the term symbolism is being used too loosely. Be mindful that you don’t use “symbolizes” when you really mean to say “indicates” or “demonstrates.”


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